Friday, September 11, 2009

Game Preview: Fresno State (1-0) at Wisconsin (1-0)

Edge: Even
It was a little strange that junior Ryan Colburn (6-3, 220) played less than two full quarters in his first-ever start, but he looked adequate while he was in there, connecting on 5 of 9 passes for 161 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown pass. Colburn’s only previous career action was at Oregon in 2007 though, so he does have some exposure to hostile road environments. Make no mistake redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers (6-0, 210) will be used as a change of pace. In his first-ever series, toward the end of the second quarter, Feathers led the Bulldogs downfield, finishing the drive with a 30-yard option keeper of his own for a touchdown. True freshman Derek Carr (6-3, 190), younger brother of David Carr, was 2 of 2 for 37 yards, but it’s unclear whether he’ll play this Saturday.

Wisconsin will show the ‘Dogs a completely different look this season with junior Scott Tolzien (6-3, 205), who’s 257 passing yards in last week’s win over Northern Illinois were the most ever for a Badgers quarterback making his debut. Tolzien was an efficient 15 of 20, but tossed two interceptions compared to one touchdown. Like Fresno State, the Badgers have a change-of-pace signal caller in redshirt freshman Curt Phillips (6-3, 228), who led two series last week while completing 3 of 5 passes for 24 yards and running four times for 34 yards. In last year’s 13-10 win in Fresno, now-departed Allan Evridge took all but one snap for Wisconsin, with senior Dustin Sherer (6-3, 220) taking the other. Sherer took over the starting job midway through last season, but lost it to Tolzien this year.

Running Backs
Edge: Bulldogs
Before the season started, this looked like the one game on Fresno State’s schedules where the opponent’s running backs might match up. But that was before we saw what an impact true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185) could make. He rushed 10 times for 75 yards and a score in his first collegiate game – as the fourth-stringer. Junior Ryan Mathews (5-11, 220) is the most talented back on either team, and ran for 106 yards on 11 carries in the opener, including a 60-yard touchdown. Sprinkle in seniors Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) and the Bulldogs’ backs are twice as deep as Wisconsin’s. Miller added 50 yards in the opener, and Harding didn’t get a carry, but led the team with 822 yards rushing last season.

As is usually the case with Wisconsin, its running game presents the biggest challenge for opponents. Much ballyhooed P.J. Hill, who battled his way to 112 yards against the ‘Dogs last year, is gone, but the guys stepping into featured roles might be even better. That’s definitely the case with sophomore John Clay (6-1, 248), a big, powerful runner who runs straight into contact and keeps churning. Clay tallied just 14 of his 884 yards last season against Fresno State, but it was just his second collegiate game. Now he brings the experience of a 5.7 yards per carry average and nine touchdowns. And junior Zach Brown (5-10, 210) presents another hefty challenge. Brown had 305 yards and three touchdowns in 2008 on 5.5 yards per carry. The two combined for just 94 yards on 29 carries last week, but don’t let take away from the fact they are flat-out talented.

Edge: Bulldogs
The Bulldogs have more weapons and more experience, and got off to an even better start than Wisconsin with senior Marlon Moore’s (6-1, 190) 92-yard touchdown reception. Senior Seyi Ajirotutu (6-4, 210) presents matchup problems for Wisconsin, as does junior Devon Wylie (5-9, 170). Ajirotutu had three catches for 57 yards in the opener. Wylie burned the Badgers on a 47-yard catch and run up the gut last season. A weapon the Badgers didn’t have to deal with last year was redshirt sophomore Jamel Hamler (6-2, 205), who had the Bulldogs’ first catch of the young season for 20 yards.

With the passing game somewhat of a weak spot for the Badgers last season, the tight ends were the keys. Travis Beckum is gone, but senior Garrett Graham (6-3, 250) returns after leading the team with 40 catches, 540 yards and five touchdowns last season. Heading into the season he was thought to be the X-factor of the unit, but that may have changed with last week’s emergence of junior Isaac Anderson (5-10, 177) as a deep threat. He had three catches for 100 yards in the opener, including an 80-yard touchdown and also rushed for a 23-yard score. Anderson and sophomore Nick Toon (6-3, 212), who had five catches for 72 yards last week, could both be poised for breakout years. Junior David Gilreath (5-11, 170) is one of the team’s fastest players, but didn’t get a reception in the opener. Last year, Gilreath led Wisconsin wideouts with 31 catches for 520 yards and three scores.

Offensive Line
Edge: Even
Fresno State averaged 7.9 yards per play last week – and you don’t do that without good play from the line. Again though, it’s hard to tell how good the unit is against lesser competition. Wisconsin will definitely give a better idea. The Bulldogs didn’t allow any sacks, as the pass blocking held up even better than expected. Sophomore right tackle Kenny Wiggins (6-7, 310) looks to have replaced Bobby Lepori as the team’s enforcer. Junior right guard Andrew Jackson (6-5, 295) will likely be the best lineman on the field.

Wisconsin announced some bad news Thursday, releasing that junior center John Moffitt (6-5, 320), on the preseason watch list for the Lombardi and Riminigton trophies, will likely miss Saturday’s game with lingering effects of a pectoral injury. Moffitt also missed the opener, allowing Travis Frederick (6-4, 336) to become the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a season opener in Badgers history. Junior right guard Bill Nagy also missed the opener with injury, and was replaced by sophomore Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 317) – the smallest Badgers starter. Junior left tackle Gabe Carimi (6-7, 325) is an All-Big 10 candidate, and sophomore tackle Josh Oglesby (6-7, 330) adds similar size on the other side. Junior left guard Jake Bscherer (6-7, 310) fills out a unit that could cause trouble for the Bulldogs in the middle, but might have trouble keeping up with Fresno State’s speedy edge rush from the ends.

Defensive Line
Edge: Even
It’s difficult to get a good gauge on this group against UC Davis, but the pressure on the quarterback was nonstop – pretty much the polar opposite of 2008. Junior end Chris Carter (6-2, 230) and redshirt sophomore end Kenny Borg (6-3, 245) will be tough for Wisconsin to block if the big nasties can’t catch up to their edge speed. The bigger question for the ‘Dogs is how will the interior hold up against the north-south running game? Junior Chris Lewis (6-3, 260) will be greatly undersized, but his strength should level the playing field somewhat. Junior Cornell Banks (6-3, 300) might be a better option in this one.

While most of the Badgers’ defensive front it unproven, the one guy who stole Pat Hill’s attention on film this week is senior end O’Brien Schofield (6-3, 248), who tied for the team lead with five sacks in his first season as a starter in 2008. Though Schofield had just one tackle against the ‘Dogs last year, it was for a 9-yard loss. Sophomore end J.J. Watt (6-6, 287) played his first career game last week and recorded six tackles. The two tackles have one combined career start in sophomore Patrick Butrym (6-4, 291) and senior Dan Moore (6-2, 283).

Edge: Bulldogs
Junior Nico Herron (6-3, 240) is coming off WAC player of the week honors for his 94-yard interception return for a touchdown and five tackles. Herron looked like one of the most improved players all camp and if it carries over into the big games on the Bulldogs’ schedule it’ll translate into this unit being a huge team strength. Junior Ben Jacobs (6-3, 225) is coming off a monster season of 113 tackles and All-WAC honors and the Bulldogs finally have some talented depth in true freshmen Travis Brown (6-2, 235) and Daniel Salinas (5-11, 205). Brown needs to clean up the sloppy tackling he displayed last week, but it’s not fair to be too harsh on a guy just out of high school.

Senior Jaevery McFadden (6-2, 230) is a tackling machine who led the Badgers with 84 last season, but he doesn’t get into the backfield much – just 2.5 tackles for losses last year and no sacks. He leads a unit featuring two newcomers at the other spots in junior Culmer St. Jean (6-0, 233) and freshman Mike Taylor (6-2, 221), who made quite the debut with seven tackles and a fumble recovery in his first career game.

Defensive Backs
Edge: Even
Despite pitching a shutout in the opener last week, skeptics are pointing to the Bulldogs’ secondary as a concern. While there is a lack of proven depth, senior corner A.J. Jefferson (6-0, 190) has the talent to catapult himself into being one of the best in school history. He made a couple of impressive pass breakups against UC Davis that make it seem like he’s on the right track. Jefferson had a game-high 11 tackles against the Badgers last season. Junior free safety Lorne Bell (5-10, 200) played like a maniac, running around ready to light someone up. Bell led the team with seven tackles, and might help bring back the “Bulldog Football” attitude that’s been missing the past three seasons. Sophomore corner Isaiah Green (5-10, 180) made a couple coverage mistakes last week that could have been devastating against a better team – but look for him to clean those up with experience.

An unheralded Wisconsin secondary is led by senior Chris Maragos (6-0, 198), a former walk-on who led the team with a career-high nine tackles in the opener. Sophomore corner Devin Smith (5-11, 188) is thought to have breakout potential in his first season as starter. Smith added a career-high six tackles against Northern Illinois. Junior strong safety Jay Valai (5-9, 201) loves to hunt for the big hit, but Bret Bielema wants to see him reel in the risk of missing tackles to go for the impact play.

Special Teams
Edge: Bulldogs
Fresno State owns a frightening reputation for blocking kicks, with a nation-best 45 blocks since 2002 – four more than Texas. The Bulldogs didn’t disappoint last year, blocking a kick and a punt against Wisconsin. Fresno State’s Devon Wylie blocked a punt last week against UC Davis to get the 2009 stats rolling. The most memorable play for Fresno State’s 2001 win at Camp Randall was Bernard Berrian’s kickoff return to open the second half, but the Bulldogs’ best kick returner of all-time is senior A.J. Jefferson, who is the NCAA’s active leader. Sophomore kicker Kevin Goessling (6-0, 190) is on the Lou Groza Award watch list after showing great improvement a season ago – he missed three field goals in the three-point loss to Wisconsin last year.

Sophomore kicker Philip Welch (6-3, 200) was a Groza Award semifinalist last season after nailing 20 of 24 field goals – two of those were missed from beyond 40 yards. With these teams’ history, it could very well come down to a single kick. Sophomore Brad Nortman (6-3, 209) averaged 41.8 yards, fifth best in the country last year among freshmen. While return man David Gilreath has all kinds of speed and quickness, he averaged just 19.6 yards per kick return, and had no touchdowns.

Edge: Even
This type of football game is what Fresno State’s Pat Hill lives for – anyone, anytime, anywhere. Hill and the Bulldogs are 1-2 all-time against Wisconsin, losing twice by a combined five points. Hill never has a problem getting the Bulldogs amped up for these games against BCS-conference opponents, but Wisconsin’s players should be jacked up just the same remembering last year’s hard-hitting gem.

Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema had the most victories of any Badgers head coach in his first three seasons with 29 – winning 17 of his first 18 games at the school. But the Badgers had a disappointing 2008 and are unranked again this year.

Edge: Badgers
It’s tough to win at Camp Randall, the Badgers’ 80,000-plus seat stadium where they’re 30-3 since 2004. But the Bulldogs have won there before, 32-20 in their dream 2001 season where they screamed to a No. 8 national ranking. Fresno State, though, is coming off an emotional 51-0 drubbing of UC Davis and feels it needs a win to keep momentum going for next week’s WAC opener with Boise State. The Bulldogs’ 14 wins against BCS-conference schools since 2000 is second most of any non-BCS-conference school. Fresno State has won four of its past five against BCS teams – but the one loss was to Wisconsin last season. The biggest question mark is how will the reported flu outbreak impact Wisconsin’s players, and will any key guys miss the game?

***Photos courtesy of Juan Villa


  1. Given all these advantages, I'm really surprised that UW is an 8.5 point favorite. Although, once Vegas takes this analysis into account, I'd expect that line to move quite a bit. The fact that FSU is so much better than the Badgers seems to have escaped the oddsmakers. Not really sure why.


    Good luck in the WAC!

  2. Yeah, I was surprised too. Must be because of a first-year QB in a loud road venue. And because Fresno State's defense was terrible against the run most of last season.

    The D looked great against UC Davis, but it's hard to get a true feel for how good it is until this week.

    I welcome your disagreements though. Plus, the more important thing to go with in team match-ups is Fresno State's O-line vs. Wisconsin's D-line (for example) but that's not how this is set up. This is more to get to know each other's teams.

  3. Fair enough. That said, the idea that UW, an 8.5 point favorite, is even/at a disadvantage in every single category, save "Intangibles," is a bit ridiculous. And I think that's probably an understatement.

    But, this debate will be settled soon enough. Should be a good game.

  4. I personally have the utmost respect for the Wisconsin program. The fans tailgating around us in Fresno last season were great and polite. The football team itself agrees to play Fresno State fairly often -- which I can't say is true for ANY of the California Pac-10 teams within a short drive. That shows great character.

    That said, I was quite surprised to see an 8.5 point line, and I don't by any means think the 'Dogs are just gonna go in and cruise to victory. It'll take a fanatical effort.

    But which positions would you say the Badgers have the edge at? One of the main reasons I posted on Wisconsin's message board was to get some educated football talk going and learn more about each other's teams.

  5. Well, here are some possible advantages (I think both lines and the secondary are, too, but it's a little early to tell for sure):

    (1) As much as the FSU backs look good, I'll be very surprised (emphasis on "very") if they are better than John Clay and Zach Brown, likely the best tailback tandem in the Big Ten, with Montee Ball and Erik whatever-his-name-is backing them up.

    (2) The Badger wide receivers and tight ends are very good. There's a reason Gilreath is no longer seeing playing time: Anderson, Toon, and Graham (TE) are excellent (Graham is a potential All-American this season), with a very good H-back type (like Beckum) in Kendricks, a solid #3 WR in Maurice Moore, and that Gilreath guy, who's basically the #4 receiver now, not to mention a former starter, Jefferson, now relegated to 5th or even 6th on the depth chart behind a very talented (at #5) freshman, Appleton.

    This is literally the best set of skill players in Madison (with the possible exception of QB -- and that's a biggee, but Tolzien looked excellent last week with one bad pass) in 5 years at least.

    I think Fresno State is a solid program and will give a good game, but UC-Davis -- their upset over a terrible Stanford squad a few years ago notwithstanding -- wasn't any kind of a guage for the 'Dogs. Moreover, playing in Camp Randall in a 9am PST start, will be tough.

    I went to last year's battle, and it was a fine contest between two fairly matched teams. I suspect this season will be similar, but with a substantial homefield advantage for the Badgers (not just Camp Randall, but the start time, too).

  6. Let me follow up here with a bit of post game:
    From where I sat, you guys had the better return game, offensive line, and secondary. I'm surprised to say I would call the running backs a draw (but your offensive line more than made up for it), and I would say the same about the linebackers, defensive lines, kickers, and coaches. I'd say the Badgers came out ahead on receivers and quarterbacks (though there's certainly an argument that the receivers were a draw).

    I'll post my final thoughts on your other thread


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